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Venice in Rome

November 8, 2010

Just back from blissful car-free stay in Venice, now on a bus stuck in traffic in Rome, observing how dis-functional this city is.  Most of the cars don’t need to be there; they contain a single, healthy, adult passenger who could easily walk, bike, take transit or any combination of the above. They are driving because of the VICIOUS CIRCLE effect;  too many cars and too little planning has resulted in a malfunctioning transit system which leads more and more people, out of despair and disrespect to choose to drive.  The choice is made easier by the fact that parking is virtually free, illegal parkers rarely being prosecuted. This not only slows down public transit further as buses with difficulty get past double parked cars, but it makes the pedestrian experience an unpleasant one.  Romans must choose between 1. walking on dirty sidewalks blocked frequently by scooters and at least at every intersection by illegally parked cars, 2. biking in smog-filled, dangerous streets with few safe places to lock a bike 3. spending hours of frustration waiting for or on public transit which doesn’t run on schedule or 4. get in a car or scooter, use the drive time to chat on the phone, read the paper or email in slow traffic, in any case negotiate traffic faster than a public bus, park anywhere close to one’s destination for free.  As it stands the practical choice is obvious, but what sad results for a city with such great potential.

In Venice I noted that the only motorized vehicles one sees (boats) are used for delivery, emergency or taxis.  A bureaucrat in Venice doesn’t drive a boat to work, a shopkeeper doesn’t double-park a boat outside her shop, even smartly dressed lawyers hop a vaporetto and walk to their final destination without sacrificing status or social standing. The density of people is astounding as is the variety of use; children playing, people stopping to chat, merchants selling wares, business people moving quickly to destinations, all coexist.  Water or not, the situation in Rome should be these same; few private vehicles clogging the arteries, leaving space for efficient buses and trams, pleasant public space for pedestrians and bikers, safety for children and the elderly, and a better future for the planet.

Venice cannot be held up as an example of the ideal city;  its population has dropped drastically in recent decades and clearly there are reasons beside the reckless real-estate policies which encouraged the exodus. Yet on a purely experiential level, three days spent in a humane urban environment have reminded me that we can do much better than what we settle for here in Rome.

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